I am a fool.
I cannot now conceive of what madness struck me and persuaded me to trust Calhoun. Lynch, of course, had the right of it, and did not grant one iota of faith in that lying, mendacious blackguard; and so is Lynch innocent, both of folly, and of murder.
It is only we three, Kelly, Shane and myself, who are murderous fools.
After the slaughter, we returned to Dame Flanagan’s abode, Lynch opening the portal for MacManus and Kelly, though I am still barred from the house owing to my mistreatment of Meredith Vance. I laid my head in the beast-wagon, of course, as I have done these last many days; I kept my log, full of pride and vanity, and then slept the contented slumber of the victorious, of the righteous.
Until this morn, when I found that I had slept in the innocent oblivion of a fool for days; even though I have walked about, spoken, fought, struck devil’s bargains and, aye, committed more than one murder.
I discovered this in the late morning, near midday, when I was on the porch with my companions, plotting our course once we reach Bermuda, trying to determine how we would find our ship in that place, and how retrieve her. Lynch was within the house, pursuing I knew not what course. As we palavered thus, we were interrupted by the arrival of one Brick Calhoun, Bastard of Charleston. He arrived in a different beast-wagon than the decrepit tin-pot he had steered last night; this one was tall and shining like new silver, where it wasn’t lacquered a rich, gleaming black; the shape was more akin to a proper wagon, having a compartment for men near to the front and a long, low bed for cargo behind it. He came to a halt, making the beast growl – its voice was deeper and more powerful by far than the usual run of beast-wagons; this one made the window panes in Dame Flanagan’s house tremble as if in a storm blown down from the wintry north – and then he emerged, strutting, smiling, as if he had not a care in this world or the one after.
But he did bring cares for the rest of us, aye. Direful, woeful cares.
“Hey there, fellers,” he called out, with the bonhomie of a drunkard on New Year’s Eve, when every man will stand a drink for good luck’s sake. “How ye’all doin’ this fine and glorious Dixy-land day?” (I have not a single thought as to why he would call us fellers, which are, to my knowledge, woodsmen who fell trees. But there are many words that Calhoun uses, or misuses, and I do not understand why; so I have merely rendered his speech as I hear it.)
We three did glare at him in silence for some moments, proffering no further response to his greeting. “We have made a bargain with you, Calhoun,” quoth I, “but ‘twas neither for amicability nor hospitality, so press us not for civil intercourse with the likes of you.”
His smile vanished as I spoke, then slowly returned, like water seeping through a leak in a hull. “Shucks, I didn’t come here to press ye’all. Gnaw, I’m here to give you a present! A gift!” He removed a cell-phone from his pocket, showing it to us. “Ye’all want to see it? Take a look!” He touched the phone, tapping its glass face for some moments. Then he held it upright, the expression on his face one of eager anticipation.
It was a magic-window scene, and as such, something I did not wish to observe closely. I find that these magic windows give me a pain in my skull, and rarely if ever stand to a purpose beyond lies, vanity, and foolery for the sport of children. But I frowned and gazed into the glass in his hand, knowing that Calhoun would not come here without cause, and it behooved us to know what his intention was so that we might dismiss it, impede it, or permit it, as the case may be. Most like not the last, I did think. How little did I know.
It was a scene looked down upon from on high, as though we were cushion owners at a theatre, watching a performance from a rented box. There were four primary figures, all seemingly men, two pale and two dark of skin; one of the dark ones held his arm outstretched, pointing his finger – nay, it was a pistola – and speaking to the pale man, who held a sword –
The very moment I realized it, Kelly said, “Captain – it’s you!”
MacManus murmured, “It’s us,” and pointed towards the left side of the stone, where stood two men, farther away but still recognizable, largely because of Kelly’s size. When MacManus gestured, Calhoun drew the stone back, clearly not wishing MacManus to touch it; when MacManus dropped his hand, Calhoun thrust the stone closer to us once more, saying, “Look close, now. Don’t want to miss the good part.”
And we watched as I slashed the gun-toting dog’s wrist, and then hewed through the other’s neck. We could not see either the man above that Shane killed, nor the mighty stone that Kelly threw – that is, we watched him heft and hurl it, with a great shout, but not where it landed nor to what effect – but then the magic window turned, and we watched as we three slaughtered the men in the beast-wagon. Then it drew closer as I walked to the wounded dog, now lying on the ground, and I seemed just out of arm’s reach as I blinded the man and slew him with my blade. I looked back over my shoulder – at Calhoun, if I recall correctly – and then the window stopped moving, presenting a single image of my face, with the dead man lying on the ground behind me. Calhoun returned the glass to his pocket.
Gods. What have I gotten my men into? What have I done?
He held up one finger. “First thing: you boys need to know that I got friends, and they got copies o’ that there viddy-o. Anythin’ happens to me, they gone send it with your names an’ descriptions straight on to the police. So don’t be thinkin’ nothin’ ‘bout doin’ me like you done them fellers. Right?”
I exchanged a look with my men. We did not, if I may speak for them as well as for myself, understand all of what we had seen: we did not know how this magic window could see our past deeds as if they were occurring right now, nor if la policia would take our actions as murder, or a fair fight fairly won; nor if la policia could even find us, with but our names and descriptions. After all, the English have known my name, my ship, my face, for many a year, and still I had remained a free rover on the Irish seas; thus far we had known only the iron ships of the Guards of the Coast to be a formidable foe to us, and not the men of the city watch of Charleston. But we were all of us familiar with the ways of the blackmailer, the extortionist; ‘twas not often a stratagem between pirates, as we are not often protective of our good name and reputation in society; but we were not ignorant of the intrigues that happened in court and the like. I had no doubt that Calhoun would have made sure that his threats were both sincere and perilous before confronting us with them, knowing it would be the work of a moment for us to kill him where he stood. If he had learned nothing else from the killing last night, he would have learned that, having watched us butcher nine armed men like spring lambs.
“Aye,” I said to him, Kelly and Shane nodding beside me.
His arrogant face split into that impish grin. He held up another finger. “Second thing. I just gotta ask: does your arse hurt?”
I blinked my confusion, then shook my head. “Nay, we took no harm from the battle.”
Calhoun shook his head, and curled his two fingers back into his fist. “See, I would ha’ thought your arse would be burnin’ today. I mean, after I fucked that arse, and wrecked that arse – I’m surprised bein’ my bitch don’t hurt you none. But maybe after the shock wears off.” Then he laughed, long and loud and booming.
I mastered my temper by remembering my men. Just at this moment, I would fain have slaughtered this pig, and gone smiling to the gibbet for it – except I would not hang alone.
“What would ye have of us?” I asked him when his amusement fell to a pig’s snorts and grunts. “We’ve little money. Ah,” I said as it came to me then, “of course. We will move on and clear the field for ye to woo Meredith.” I started to turn and order my men to gather their belongings and weigh anchor, but Calhoun stopped me with a hand on my shoulder. It was all I could do to resist the urge to break his arm, but I was able to turn back to confront that grinning pig’s face.
“Hold on, now. That aint what this is about. Besides, Merry aint yours to give. Tell you the truth, if I wanted to take Meredith, there aint shit you could do to stop me.” He paused then, and after a moment raised his eyebrows. I realized he was awaiting some response from me, and so I nodded and gestured for him to go on. Perhaps he has the right of it; I have been enough of a fool over Meredith Vance, and I intend to stop dancing to her tune, any road. Saying this to the pig bothered my pride far less than the constant haranguing knowledge that I had given my men over to the grasp of this extortionist devil.
He smiled wide at what he saw as my capitulation, and then said, “Gnaw, I told you before, you go to that meetin’ with me, I’d see you get to Bermuda. I’m a man o’ my word, and so to Bermuda you go. But when you get there, see, there’s a thing ye’all’s gone do for me. Don’t worry,” he drew the Verizon-stone again and waggled it at us, “it aint nothin’ you didn’t already do nine times last night.” He put the cell-phone back into his pocket and turned away, laughing his booming pig-snort of a guffaw.
And then he ran face-to-face into Balthazar Lynch. Well, face-to-chest; Calhoun is my height, well above young Lynch, and twice the weight of the slender youth. But my man held his ground, and it was Calhoun who fell back from him, though from startlement, in the main. Lynch stared at him coldly. Calhoun cursed and reddened, his amusement curdled quickly into ire. He stepped close, looming over Lynch; and yet the lad backed away not an inch, not a step.
“You got somethin’ you want to say, you little shit?” Calhoun snarled, hands in white-knuckled fists. But the sly look was never far from his eyes, it seemed, and his gaze flickered back towards the three of us, his lip curling. “You didn’t see what I got on your boys, there. Want to look? See what it looks like to have three sets o’ balls in a vise?” He took out the cell-phone and waggled it – though he was careful to keep it out of Lynch’s easy reach, I saw. But Lynch did not react. His wintry stare remained frozen to Calhoun’s flushed face, which, I saw, was rapidly sallowing as the lad – no, as my man – stared him down, entirely without fear.
Then he spoke. “I follow my captain. He wishes to allow you to set our course for now, so be it. ‘Tis often the best way when facing a coward, and I will go where he wills it.” Lynch pointed at me, to show whose will he would follow. Then he tilted his head, his eyes narrowing. “But ere you leave, you will know this: if you make good on your threats, and doom my captain and my shipmates with whatever ye have on that ‘phone, then I will cut you open and feed your innards to the sharks while you watch.”
His face turning red once more, Calhoun grabbed for Lynch, but my man leaned back out of his grasp, and, with the speed of a hunting cat striking, he had a dagger drawn and the tip against Calhoun’s gut. Calhoun went still as a stump, and stand there for a moment, they did. Then Lynch said softly, “If they die, you die. Remember it.” He lowered the blade, stepped back and out of Calhoun’s path. The pig looked at him, then nodded, wiping his mouth. It was the nod of a man who recognizes an enemy; it held the assurance of enmity, Calhoun’s promise that he would find a way to best Balthazar Lynch, or die trying.
Lynch’s expression said clearly that he would die trying.
The pig looked back at the three of us – the weak-minded fools whom he had bested already – and his smile returned, his swagger with it. Ye gods, but I hate that I have given that verminous toad a reason to gloat. He strutted past Lynch without another glance, and swung up into his beast-wagon. He shut the hatch, brought the beast to life with a thunderous growl, and then pointed at me and called out, “I’ll be in touch, boys. Don’t go nowheres.” Off he roared.
Lynch turned to look at me, and I could not meet his eyes. There was but one man of worth in that place that day, and I could not bear the shame of it. It sickens me even now to write of it, to write of any of this. “Kelly, Shane,” I said, turning to them, seeing in their eyes the same humiliation I felt tearing at my gut, “Gather your gear. We be a danger to Dame Margaret’s house, now.” I turned halfway back, but could not bear to look at him to whom I now spoke. “Mr. Lynch,” I said, “I would ask that you stay, and bring us word from Calhoun when – when it comes.”
“Captain,” Lynch said then. He took a step toward me, reaching out with one hand.
I wish it had held the dagger, still. Perhaps I could have thrown myself upon it, regained some worth as a man. But his hand was empty.
“Nate?” he said.
I said nothing. I turned away. I skulked to my wagon-van, and then thought better of it. “Tell the Grables they have earned this wagon. They should take it and depart: there is naught else of value for them here.” I turned and looked at MacManus. “I will head east. Catch me up when you are equipped.” He nodded, and he and Kelly went inside, moving quickly but with heads low and shoulders bent.
Lynch reached me. He grabbed hold of my wrist. “Nate, wait,” he said.
I pulled my arm from his grasp. I’d have done it with force, perhaps cuffed the boy for his impudence, but I had not the authority to chastise him; not now. Nor the strength: the weight of my shame had exhausted me entirely. Without looking at him, I spake these words. “If ye wish to remain when we three sail to Bermuda, I do hereby set ye free of all oaths, all bonds of loyalty. They are nothing now but chains, that will weigh ye down, drag ye to the hellish depths where I writhe now. If ye will bear word to us, that is all I would ask. All I can ask of ye, now.”
“Nate, please!” he said, and I heard tears in his words.
I looked at him then, at his clear features, his large eyes now awash with salt drops. “Ye’re a good man, Balthazar,” I told him. “I am sorry that I am not.”
Then I walked away. Lynch let me go.